Ravens get offensive in bid to reach Super Bowl

The face of the Baltimore Ravens is much thinner these days, and

the identity of the team also appears to have undergone a

transformation.

Ray Lewis, the centerpiece of the defense, reported to his 17th

training camp as a far lighter version of his previous self. The

13-time Pro Bowl linebacker dropped around 20 pounds to improve his

ability to pursue running backs on pass patterns, an endeavor the

37-year-old attacked with his usual intensity during the

preseason.

Thanks in no small part to Lewis, Baltimore is the only team to

reach the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. Combining a

relentless defense with a solid running game and a veteran

placekicker, the Ravens won 49 games from 2008-11 under coach John

Harbaugh, third most during that span behind New England and

Pittsburgh.

Baltimore fully expects to continue that success rate this year,

although the fashion in which the Ravens win could very well be

different. For the first time since Vinny Testaverde was flinging

passes for Ted Marchibroda in the late 1990s, this Baltimore team

could depend more on its offense than defense.

The reason for the flip: The defense has changed dramatically

from last season, and quarterback Joe Flacco, now in his fifth

year, is sharper and more confident than ever.

”Baltimore’s definitely traditionally been a defensive

leader,” second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith said. ”But with a

quarterback like Joe Flacco, a running back like Ray Rice, a

receiver like Anquan Boldin, an offensive line like we have and the

skilled players growing, I think there’s a lot of potential for

this offense.”

If the defense is to excel under first-year coordinator Dean

Pees, it will have to do so for at least two months without injured

linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had 14 sacks last season in claiming

NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. The unit also lost

linebacker Jarret Johnson (56 tackles) and end Cory Redding (4 1/2

sacks) to free agency. Not to mention Lewis and safety Ed Reed are

well into their 30s.

Lewis isn’t conceding anything about the strength of the

defense. But if the offense happens to carry the load, he would not

complain.

”At the end of the day, that’s why we’re called a team. It

doesn’t matter who takes the lead, who does whatever,” Lewis said.

”If we go into games and win games together, that’s the

bottom-line emphasis. It doesn’t matter what it is. Me, Ed and the

guys who are on our side, we are going to do what we are supposed

to do, what we’ve always done. So, that’s not going to change for

us.”

With Suggs out at least until November with a torn right

Achilles tendon, the pressure is on linebackers Paul Kruger and

rookie Courtney Upshaw to make up the difference.

”Those are the perfect guys to replace `Sizzle,”’ cornerback

Lardarius Webb said. ”We’re going to miss him, yes we are. But we

have some guys who are going to kind of step up and take some

pressure off us and get to the quarterback. I just love how Paul

and how Upshaw get to the quarterback.”

Flacco, Rice and everyone on the offense intend to do their

part.

”It’s definitely tough without Suggs. It’s definitely a

difference,” Smith said. ”But that’s on everyone to pick up the

slack not only the defense, but us as well.”

A strong performance by the offense would help take the pressure

off Pees’ unit, but Reed expects little change from a defense that

has ranked in the top three in fewest points allowed for four

straight years.

”We still hold everything we do to the highest standard,” Reed

said, ”regardless of what the other side is doing.”

If Flacco can efficiently run the no-huddle offense, the Ravens

should have plenty of opportunity to score. If a drive stalls, it

will be up to rookie kicker Justin Turner to get at least three

points. Turner takes over for veteran Billy Cundiff, who was cut

this summer and thus will never get the chance with the Ravens to

atone for missing a potential tying field goal from 32 yards in the

waning seconds of a 23-20 loss to New England in last season’s AFC

title game.

The Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of their

four trips to the playoffs under Harbaugh and twice reached the

conference championship game. But Baltimore is still striving for

its first Super Bowl appearance since after the 2000 season.

”When you look at the Ravens, we’ve been close every year,”

Rice said. ”I think it’s just time for us to get over that hump

now, and we have the pieces to do it.”

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